Focus on New Laws: Ban on Holding a Cell Phone While Driving

June 10, 2019

Cities may need to think about updating their personnel policies and purchasing hands-free technology to comply with the new law.

Most Minnesota drivers will soon be prohibited from holding a cell phone while driving under a new law passed during the 2019 legislative session.

The new law, Chapter 11, expands current state law (Minnesota Statutes, section 169.011, subdivision 94 and Minnesota Statutes, section 169.475) to ban using a “wireless communications device” to text, call, or access content while operating a motor vehicle on a street or highway. Drivers may, however, use voice activation or hands-free mode to call, text message, or access an application. The law will go into effect on Aug. 1, 2019.

The fine for the first violation of this law is $50 plus court fees, and the fine for second or subsequent violations is $275 plus court fees.

Impact on cities

While no city is required to update its personnel policy to reflect this change, the League advises cities to make sure it is clear to employees that the city expects them to comply with this law. They should also make sure employees understand what will happen if they violate the law, whether the employee will be responsible to pay the fine, and whether he or she is subject to discipline by the city.

Cities may need to think about updating their personnel policies and purchasing hands-free technology. To that end, the League updated pages 47-48 of its model personnel policy to reflect expectations a city may have for its employees relating to the state law change. Because this is a general model document, cities are encouraged to work with their city attorney to determine what changes are appropriate for their specific city policy documents.

Download the model personnel policy (doc)

What is prohibited?

A person cannot initiate, compose, send, retrieve, or read an electronic message. An electronic message includes but is not limited to an email, text message, instant message, accessing a web page, a voicemail, a transmitted image, transmitted video content (including video calling), gaming, and other data transmitted using electronic communications.

Drivers cannot use a device at any time to make a cellular phone call, including initiating a call, talking, listening, or participating in video calling.

Lastly, a person may not access video or audio content, images, games, or software applications stored on the device.

Exceptions provided

Several devices are exempted from the definition of a “wireless communications device” and can be accessed while a vehicle is in motion. These include:

  • Devices or features permanently and physically integrated into the vehicle.
  • A GPS or navigation system that is only capable of being used for navigation purposes.
  • A two-way radio, citizens band radio, or amateur radio equipment used in accordance with the rules and regulations of the Federal Communications Commission.

The law also does not prohibit a person from:

  • Using a device solely in voice-activated or hands-free mode to call or send text messages (does not apply to accessing non-navigation video content, engaging in video calling or live-streaming, accessing gaming data, or reading electronic messages).
  • Viewing or operating a GPS or navigation system if it does not require the driver to type while the vehicle is in motion or part of traffic, and the person does not hold the device with one or both hands.
  • Listening to audio-based content if it does not require the driver to scroll or type while the vehicle is in motion or part of traffic and the person does not hold the device with one or both hands.
  • Obtaining emergency assistance to report a traffic accident, medical emergency, or serious traffic hazard.
  • Obtaining emergency assistance to prevent a crime about to be committed.
  • Using a device in the reasonable belief that a person’s life or safety is in immediate danger.
  • Performing official duties in an authorized emergency vehicle.

—Learn more about the hands-free law from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety (pdf)

Resource for commercial drivers

Cities will also want to be mindful of an existing 2012 Federal Motor Carrier hands-free law that restricts the use of all hand-held mobile devices for drivers of commercial motor vehicles.

—View a Mobile Phone Restrictions Fact Sheet from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration